19 Feb 2021
The New Geopolitics of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war dramatically altered the geopolitics of the region. On February 16, Nigar Goksel, Sergey Markedonov, and Eldar Mamedov joined the second webinar organized by Caucasus Edition titled “The New Geopolitics of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict” to discuss the new roles of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and other regional and global actors in the South Caucasus. The webinar was co-moderated by Caucasus Edition editor, Sevil Huseynova, and Caucasus Edition advisory board member and Associate Professor at the American University of Armenia, Asbed Kotchikian. The guests spoke in their personal capacity.
Russia’s Competitive Cooperation
Sergey Markedonov, a Caucasus expert and Leading Researcher of the Euro-Atlantic Security Center at the MGIMO Institute, highlighted the difference between Nagorno-Karabakh and other post-Soviet conflicts. “Nagorno Karabakh was one place where the EU and the US interests did not contradict the Russian ones. Russian role as mediator was also accepted by both sides of the conflict, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which would be hard to imagine in other post-soviet conflicts. In Nagorno-Karabakh both sides were in favor of Russian mediation, albeit of course, they had different expectations,” Markedonov suggested.
According to Markedonov, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict showed that Russia does not have a uniform policy for all conflicts. Having supported Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and as a result, losing its influence in Georgia due to the August 2008 war, it had no incentives to similarly antagonize Azerbaijan, and kept a balanced and positive relationship with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This also differentiated Russia’s approach from that of Turkey, which openly supported one of the parties, Azerbaijan. Markedonov acknowledged, however, that Russia’s balancing act received mixed reviews in Armenia. While some were grateful to Russia for preventing the destruction and takeover of Stepanakert by the Azerbaijani army, others criticized its relatively passive role and late engagement.
Asbed Kotchikian interprets that passivity as a strategic move. “…The delay in the reaction was part of the strategy. The starting point in Nagorno-Karabakh was not the same as in Abkhazia, Crimea, etc. Nagorno-Karabakh was the only conflict where Russia did not have boots on the ground before 2020,” asserted the speaker. The outcome of the conflict altered that reality.
Turkey’s “Zero Problems” in the rearview mirror
Turning to Russia-Turkey relations, Markedonov downplayed the risks of a potential proxy war in Nagorno-Karabakh. He described the relationship as a “competitive cooperation,” one in which the two powers cross paths in many regions of the world and where their disagreements in some areas are complemented by cooperation in others, preventing the emergence of proxy wars and mitigating the violence in ongoing conflicts.
Nigar Goksel, the Turkey Project Director at International Crisis Group, agrees that Turkey takes into consideration Russia’s influence in the region. Goksel also challenged the common perception that Turkey’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was civilizationally-driven. She suggests that it was primarily an interest-based decision. Turkey has long been interested in the opening of transportation routes to Azerbaijan and further east, to Central Asia. The conciliatory policies in the earlier years of the Erdoğan government known as “Zero Problem with Neighbors,” including attempts to normalize relations with Armenia had all failed to deliver results and the government calculated that without the return of the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, the roads would not open. In addition to staking out a role for itself in the South Caucasus and potentially advancing the opening of the transportation linkages, the Turkish government also saw its support for Azerbaijan as an opportunity to shore up its domestic popularity, and to showcase to allies in other geographies the benefits of cooperation with Turkey.
Referring to the prospects of a Turkey-Armenia normalization process, Goksel suggested that the closing of the border with Armenia was driven not by nationalism but by Turkey’s commitment to its ally Azerbaijan and, now, with the question of the seven regions off the table, Ankara will be interested in cooperation. The Turkish government, however, understands the fragility of the situation and that any prospective normalization should proceed slowly, and take into consideration sensitivities and tensions among the societies.
Iran’s new challenges
Unlike Russia and Turkey, Iran’s posture in the South Caucasus is primarily defensive, suggested Eldar Mamedov, a foreign policy adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. Mamedov sees three main areas of interest for Iran in the South Caucasus. First, is the stability of its northern border. Stretched thin with the tensions in the Persian Gulf and its ongoing dispute with the West, Iran would prefer to avoid involvement in a new conflict.
Iran’s second priority is the neutralization of Azerbaijani irredentism in Northern Iran. Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijani politicians have been promoting the concept of “Southern Azerbaijan.” The first president of Azerbaijan, Elchibey was particularly vocal on this topic. The Aliyevs have been more subdued, but the concern remains. Turkey’s increased support for Azerbaijan and Erdoğan’s posturing as a leader of all Turks, including his recitation of a poem about the two sides of the Aras River- seen as a reference to the unification of Northern and Southern Azerbaijan- caused discontent in Iran.
Finally, Iran fears that the dynamics in play within the conflicts in the Middle East would extend to the South Caucasus. Israel, which already had a foothold in Azerbaijan before the 2020 war and conducted intelligence operations against Iran, has deepened its engagement. Turkey facilitated the transfer of Syrian Sunni mercenaries, hostile to Iran, to fight alongside the Azerbaijani army further endangering Iran’s standing in the region.
Mamedov argues that the status quo that preceded the Second Karabakh War was favorable for Iran. Armenian control over the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomy and its surrounding regions was a restraining factor for Azerbaijan, which depended on Iran for a land connection with Nakhichevan and Turkey. While it has no claims to becoming a dominant power in the South Caucasus, Iran is not comfortable with its diminishing influence, the strengthened role of regional actors, particularly Turkey and Israel. In the case of a further escalation, Mamedov expects a more assertive policy from Iran in support of Armenia, with the intention to restore the balance of power in the South Caucasus.
The Shadow of the West
The speakers acknowledged the duality of the West: on the one hand, the role of the EU and the US as actors in the South Caucasus has diminished over the years. On the other, the regional powers considered the West to be a key protagonist when building their strategy in the region.
Memodov stressed that Iran was trying to strike a balancing act. It welcomed the reduced presence of the western powers on its northern border, while concerned that the subsequent vacuum would be filled by its regional rivals at the expense of Iran. And if Iran is ready to accept the traditionally strong position of Russia in the region, the growing role of Turkey is raising concerns.
Echoing this assessment, Goksel noted that the main protagonist for Turkey in the South Caucasus was not Russia, but rather the West. In 2020, Turkey opted for a more proactive role than in the past, not with the intention to challenge Russia but rather to fill the opening provided by the retreat of western powers from the region. In the longer-term, however, Goksel assumes that the economic ties with the west and more assertive US policy are likely to result in a course correction in which Turkey aligns itself closer with western policies and interests.
According to Markedonov, Russia similarly approached the 2008 war over South Ossetia through the prism of preventing an attempted NATO expansion to the South Caucasus, and at the price of antagonizing Georgia. In Nagorno-Karabakh, however, Russia did not face a similar geopolitical rivalry and opted for a neutral stance. Moreover, Markedonov sees Nagorno-Karabakh as one conflict in which Russia has long been cooperative and could once again cooperate with the western actors in advancing sustainable peace.
With the virtual background of Picasso’s Guernica behind him, Kotchikian concluded by pointing to the secondary role that the South Caucasus plays in the calculations of the West, and the US in particular. He suggested that the US under the Biden administration will attempt to reclaim its role in the region, most likely through the reactivation of the OSCE Minsk Group efforts. That will not be a priority, however, and the US will not invest the resources necessary for becoming a major player in the region in the foreseeable future. The reactivation of negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal and other geopolitical priorities will dominate West’s South Caucasus agenda.